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Family Week

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Sami Gayle, Rosemarie DeWitt, and Kathleen Chalfant.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Family Week, the Beth Henley play that MCC Theater is presenting at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, is set at a rehabilitation retreat somewhere in the Southwest, during the only time the patients are allowed to interact with their loved ones. At the center of the hospital's philosophy are seven key emotions that form the basis of all the problems in the patients' lives. By astonishing coincidence, they also vividly outline what's wrong with both the play and Jonathan Demme's production of it. So let's examine them one at a time.

Shame. Because the play revolves around Claire (Rosemarie DeWitt), who's being evaluated for a number of conditions following the murder of her son and the dissolution of her marriage, it attempts to push every button. As Claire admits to her distant mother Lena (Kathleen Chalfant), slight sister Rickey (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), and precocious teenage daughter Kay (Sami Gayle) the depths of her and their anguish, and as events make it clear that each woman has her own good reasons for acting out, you can't care as you're obviously supposed to about how the shards of Claire's shattered life may be refashioned or strengthened. Henley treats her characters too much like stone chess pieces, able to move only along precisely ordered paths, for that. Your feelings—assuming you can muster any—are not the ones Henley is aiming at.

Anger. Family Week does, however, have a powerful concept at its center, and the hints of genuine thought and care that sometimes emerge from Henley's script are enough to suggest there's a brilliant play in here somewhere. First produced Off-Broadway in 2000 and seen here in a revised (and, at 75 minutes, shortened format), she still hasn't found it. The astute playwright, best known for Crimes of the Heart, can't concretize the work's core meaning or ambitions, and thus does too much in too many different ways. The choppy, filmic writing style, and the use of devices that lack a tangible payoff (why, aside from economy, does every actress—including Claire—play a counselor named Sandra?), constitute a surface-level treatment sufficient to drive any theatre lover to a simmering rage.

Loneliness. When theatre truly works, the audience, actors, director, and designers exist as one entity, complicit in creating a unique, transcendent experience. Here, you constantly feel as if you've been abandoned: Demme has not connected any of the dots, granting a unifying continuity on the many short, sharp scenes that desperately need it. Derek McLane's ranch-like set is firmly realistic; perhaps too much so given Henley's flights of fancy; and Kenneth Posner's lighting is an appropriately awkward and angsty complement that derails completely in a psychedelic swirl as the story approaches its climax.

Pain. The scenes in which Claire and her sister or daughter must sit opposite each other and catalog the other's faults are incredibly strained on every level. They make it difficult to tell whether Henley scripted them as a lampoon on, or recommendation of, New Age analysis; and watching the actors struggle to make coherent dramatic sense of them is highly discomforting. Additional inconsistent bits, as when the audience "becomes" the other patients, are just as awkwardly shoehorned into the staging.

Fear. Bernstine and especially Chalfant have shone in many other plays, and proven themselves capable of far more than the one-dimensional portrayals they generally deliver here. You sense both of them struggling feverishly to make people of these ciphers, but they're up against too much to succeed. DeWitt is in some ways well cast, drawn of face and convincing in how she lets her inner jitters smolder throughout. But she's not the effervescent presence the show requires, and gets mired in Claire's muddy mentality without revealing the wounded humanity beneath it. Gayle overplays every line, trying for irrepressibility but achieving only annoying callousness. Demme has demonstrated his considerable gifts in Hollywood as the director of movies like The Silence of the Lambs (for which he won an Oscar) and Philadelphia, but evinces little understanding of the unique staging and acting requirements that make theatre different from film. The potential that these careers may be stalled or derailed by this one production is a terrifying thought.

Guilt. The most crushing part about all this is that Henley obviously meant well; there is a very genuine basis to much of what happens, even if almost all of it is insufficiently developed. Depressing as it is to stomp on a well-intended work, one can't just pretend that good intentions automatically equal good theatre.

Joy. It takes Hanley until her last scene to land an emotional sucker punch, but it's well worth waiting for. For the first time, the subject isn't what's wrong but what's right: As Claire confronts her mother about the good things she's done, and as Lena responds in kind, both DeWitt and Chalfant come alive, as if they've been thirsting to plumb nuances of feelings rather than just skim their wrist-slitting surfaces. The exchange confirms that there is a real heart beating somewhere within Family Week, but that Henley, Demme, and the actors haven't done all they could to find it. The missed opportunities aren't quite enough to inspire you to tick off the five stages of grief as well as these seven core feelings, but minutes and possibly sheep may be well within your counting range.

Family Week
Through May 23
Lucille Lortel Theater, 121 Christopher Street between Bleecker and Bedford Streets
Running Time: 75 minutes with no intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule:

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